Wicked Problems in Leadership (Ep 9)

An interview with scholar Keith Grint - Part II of III

By David Worley - April 2, 2019

In this episode, we engage a unique category of problems called "wicked." Find out exactly what this means and how you might address them in your organization. (Part II of III)

02:24 - Description of tame, critical and wicked problems.

03:55 - There is usually dispute about whether a problem is wicked.

06:07 - Accepting our own ignorance towards “a less dangerous” option.

08:18 - Grint on American gun control and drugs as a wicked problems.

10:34 - Agreement of the exact nature of the problem is an essential step.

11:18 - How to identify the right question regarding wicked problems.

14:33 - Allowing for failure(s).

15:36 - Organizational culture’s role in dealing with wicked problems.

19:24 - MBA curriculums are built for tame problems.

22:39 - Key point summary. (1) agree on the nature of the problem.

23:25 - The problem with not seeing others’ perspectives.

24:26 - (2) “We need to be experimental, iterative, and pragmatic in making progress."

Audio Episode - 26:12 [If reading this through the Groler email blast please click here to go to the main page to listen to this episode.]

David  00:01  Hi everybody. This is David Worley. Welcome to the Groler Podcast. Everyone faces problems in their leadership. In fact, one might argue that the process of leading is about solving problems. But one interesting element to this is that we rarely, if ever, stop to think about the nature of problems themselves. Exactly what type of a problem am I facing? Is there a solution to this problem, or is it fundamentally a case where we are looking for a "workable" solution rather than the "best" solution? In this episode, we engage a unique category of problems called "wicked." You will find out exactly what this means, and how you might think about approaching them, in this episode of the Groler Podcast.

David  01:05  Hi everybody. Welcome to the show. For the first time ever on the Groler Podcast we are producing a multipart interview. This is part two of a three part interview with one of the greatest scholars of leadership alive today, Dr. Keith Grint. If you are tuning into this episode for the first time, you may want to go back one episode and listen, because I provide an introduction to Keith's life and work. We also covered some interesting topics in that show. Moving forward, this episode is all about problems. And we lead off with me attempting to re-articulate three different problem categories from the academic leadership literature: tame, wicked, and critical problems. It is this middle category of wicked that it is most germane to organizational leaders and it is the one we will focus our attention on in this episode. Let's pick up the interview with Keith Grint.

David  02:01  Keith, in multiple places in your work, you describe three different kinds of problems. And you're drawing on other scholar's work as well, but for the purpose here you're calling them tame, wicked, and critical problems. Now, if I'm understanding the literature correctly in a succinct fashion, tame problems tend to be those in known areas where there are known answers. So to be really simple for listeners you could often think about this as management. I have a problem, we know what works to solve this. Here's what I do.

Keith  02:41  Yeah.

David  02:42  On the opposite end of the spectrum, you talk about critical problems, and you kind of touched on it a little bit in terms of the age that we're in. Critical problems tend to be perceived as emergencies that require a perceived decisive and authoritarian response. This could be a military response like 9-11. It could be the Federal Reserve in the U.S. responding to the financial crisis back in 2008 and 2009. For our purposes here at Groler, I think it's the wicked problems that stand out as being the most relevant and challenging to my listeners. So you describe wicked problems as problems in which there is no apparent solution, no stopping point, no linear solution. And you go on to say that in these types of cases the role of the leader is not to find solutions or answers, but rather to ask the right questions. Can you walk us through an example of how this plays out in a common organizational context?

Keith  03:53  Okay. So perhaps the first thing to say is that there quite often is a very high level of dispute and dissent about what counts as a wicked problem. So even if you and I might agree that X is a wicked problem, it would be unusual if there was a consensus about that. There would be other people saying "it isn't a wicked problem, I know how to fix it, or we need to get a commander in control."

David  04:17  Interesting.

Keith  04:18  So there's already at the very beginning of this dispute or debate, there's an issue about whether we're looking at the same thing or whether we're looking at different things. So let's just take, a current example might be if you take the British example and Brexit for the case. So we may or we may not be leaving the European Union in the next few weeks and no one seems to know that. And it's taken us two and a half years to get to the point where no one seems to know what it is we are supposed to be doing. And so part of the problem is that very first step in this long sequence of catastrophes, seems to have been the assumption by the government that this is a tame problem and all we need to do is negotiate our way to a particular kind of deal. And that's it. And then the longer this has gone on, the more they realize that (a) they don't quite know what deal they're looking for and (b) nobody can agree on whether the deal that they're looking for is a good deal or bad deal.

David  05:20  This sounds familiar Keith!

Keith  05:23  Yeah, exactly. What will happen if we do or we don't leave. So, one way of thinking about what might have happened at the very beginning is for people to have said, "okay, so this has never happened before. No country has ever left the European Union so there is no procedure here. There is no process that we could follow, which would be a management process. So it's not a tame problem, nor at that point was it a crisis. So we don't need somebody telling us what to do, we don't need the commander. What we need to recognize is it's probably a wicked problem. Which we don't quite know how to handle and there is probably nobody anywhere in the world that knows quite what to do at this point in time. So there wasn't a solution off the peg. So under those circumstances, we need to recognize our own ignorance to accept that we don't know the answer, that we don't know what we're doing, but somehow collectively and collaboratively we need to work our way to a decision point where most of us can agree this is probably the best thing to do. Rather than this being a good thing to do, this would be a less dangerous thing to do.

Keith  06:29  So quite often wicked problems don't have good answers, they have less difficult or less dangerous answers. There is just, this is as good as it's going to get. Rather than this is going to be great. So that would require the government at that time, two and a half years ago, to then engage as many people as possible. In lots of conversations about what they thought the problems were and how we might transcend them. How we might get to a different kind of approach. But because we never got to that collaborative collective bit, we end up with nobody agreeing on what it is we're trying to do. And we're now just a few weeks away for what might be an economic and political catastrophe because of the misunderstanding or the miscasting of the problem in the first place.

Keith  07:16  So I think if you take that down to an organizational level, you quite often find many of the problems, and I've taught this kind of approach for about 10 years now. And when you get a group of people in the room and you ask them at the very beginning, "what are the kinds of problems that keep them awake at night" (work problems)? They will quite often say it's something to do with people. There seems to be kind of three quarters, 80% of the problems that people bring to these sessions are directly people problems. And the other 20% are indirectly people problems. So there's something locked into that, which implies this is not really about logic and rationality. It's not that kind of a problem. I think you have to recognize that people have different interests and they have different emotions. And what drives us is not cold, clear logic, but all kinds of strange things. Which is why we quite often are unable to agree about what the problem is and what the solution might be.

Keith  08:14  So if you take one from the U.S., I mean gun control would be a good example of this. There are people in the U.K. that that don't understand why the U.S. doesn't resolve its gun problem. It's self evident that there are lots of people in the U.S. that don't think they have a gun problem. So from the very beginning there was a dispute about what the problem is. Is the problem the presence of guns or is the problem that the absence of guns. So there aren't enough guns to be able to prevent murder or they're already too many guns to prevent murders. So what you have with the gun control issue is a perfect wicked problem in that we don't agree on what the problem is. And because we don't agree on what the problem is, there's no way we could ever agree on what the solution might be because we don't have the same problem to think about.

Keith  09:04  I mean you can bring that down to the drugs issue, the illegality of drugs. We've tried now for 30 or 40 years to control drugs, but there doesn't seem to be any significantly successful country that has controlled drugs in the way that doesn't require all kinds of other things that you might not want to think about. So is the problem drug production? Is the problem drug demand? Is the problem that the drugs are coming over, in the U.S. case, the border the problem? Is Mexico the problem? Because if Mexico is the problem, then does that necessarily mean that building a wall is the solution to that problem? Or is the wall much more of a symbolic political issue, which has little to do with either drugs or immigration. I mean it might, I don't know.

Keith  09:52  But I think when you look at how people have responded to the wall issue across from California to Mexico, it is self evident, at least to me, that people simply don't agree on what the problem is and whether the wall will ever be a solution. So I think all of these things are good examples. And what's intriguing is that people get extremely upset, annoyed and angry when they try to put what they think is a logical case to explain the resolution of one of these kinds of wicked problems. And what happens is the other side doesn't agree with them. So normally what then happens is people start shouting at each other. And in reality, none of the shouting, in fact, none of the argument is probably going to work because we don't agree on what the problem is. Never mind what the solution is.

David  10:41  That's fascinating, Keith. So let me ask you this question. You're in a hotel lobby, you're waiting on an appointment and you're talking with someone who is the CEO or a C-suite level person in a small organization and they've read your stuff on wicked problems and they say to you, "Keith, I know that I'm in the midst of a wicked problem. And even my colleagues agree that it serves the template of what a wicked problem is." So they don't need to convince their colleagues that they are not agreeing. How would you advise that leader? What steps might they go through to begin to attempt to solve the, "is this the right question" problem?

Keith  11:28  Okay, so the first thing to think about is taking your premise that they've already agreed that this is a wicked problem. And quite often that might not be the case, but let's assume that everybody in the organization agrees this is what we would call a wicked problem. So part of the issue is the so called language game that we have to accept. If people don't have the same language, then you can't use this as a mechanism for trying to understand the way the world works or trying to resolve it. So, normally, we don't allow people to say if they're the Chief Exec for example, "that thing we talked about yesterday morning on reflection, I've got no idea about that. Sorry." That counts as failure in most people's books.

David  12:07  You pay me $17 million dollars a year and what I have to say is I don't have any idea what I'm doing.

Keith  12:14  Exactly. Yeah. So what you can say is "that thing we all talked about yesterday that we were all confused by on reflection. I think it's a wicked problem and that's why I don't have the answer to it. Is there anybody in the room, in the office, in the company that thinks they do have the answer? Because that implies they don't think it's a wicked problem. And if you think that you know what the answer is, I'd like you to come up here and swap places with me and tell us what you think we should be doing. And if nobody moves, I'm going to assume we all agree it's a wicked problem, which means nobody has the answer, which means we need to start a conversation to think about what we're going to do about this." So the first premise is to get the language by which people accept that probably nobody has the answer to this. This is the first move.

Keith  12:59  Then having done that, the second move is then to say, "well since we don't know what the answer is, what we're about to do is going to have to be experimental, tentative, pragmatic. We don't have an answer. There is no template for this. There is no best practice. We can't ring up one of the big consultants as say come fix this problem with one of your procedures. Because, there isn't a procedure for it. So we need to start thinking about alternative ways of approaching this and we need to recognize that since we don't have the answer, we need to start small scale and we need to make sure everything is reversible." So rather than saying, well, let's just change the way the entire organization works and see if that helps the problem; (a) that's really risky and (b) that could destroy the organization because we can't guarantee what we're about to do is going to work.

Keith  13:48  If you know it's going to work, then it's a tame problem. It's a management problem. If you don't know what it is, if it's a wicked problem, then you have to be able to say, let's just start in this part of the organization. We'll restructure it, or we'll reprocess it, or we'll do whatever and we'll try it out. And we also have to recognize that we have to monitor where we're going and if in two weeks or six months down the line, that's actually making it worse or making no difference, we need to stop that and start somewhere else with something else. So this is much more of a small scale, experimental, decentralized, let's try stuff out because what we're doing isn't working. So rather than assuming there's only be a top down plan, there's going to be a bottom up question.

Keith  14:33  And I think quite often what we do is we don't allow people to accept failure. We don't allow people to fail and we punish them when they do fail. And all of the research suggests that the punishment for failure way exceeds the rewards for success. And the way to get success in most organizations is not to make a mistake. And that is the opposite of what we're talking about here because unless somebody actually makes a mistake, unless they're prepared to say, "well, let's try it and see." Unless that happens and you're not going to make any progress towards trying to resolve these wicked problems that we're looking at. So that there is something in our assumptions about success and failure, which is a really important part of this. It's not just recognizing that the problem is wicked. It's also recognizing because it's wicked, because we don't quite know what we're doing. We have to be (a) very careful about what we're doing and (b) we have to accept what we're about to do is probably not going to work, but it might. And we know that what we're doing at the moment isn't working, so how bad can it get?

David  15:35  That's really interesting. It seems to me that what you're describing, in all of your tips for how to deal with wicked problems, is that the underlying organizational culture is going to be overwhelmingly influential in the latitude offered to leaders to constructively attempt something like a solution, even though the solution doesn't exist. Is that accurate?

Keith  16:03  Yeah. So we know that what organizational cultures, they are generated as a mechanism for most organizations to address their tame problems. That's why the lights keep going. That's why the stuff keeps getting made. Because we've got a culture which is oriented towards tame solutions for tame problems. But simultaneously what that also does is inhibit us from addressing wicked problems. So the very culture that we've got is part of the problem. And you have to be able to look at the culture and then think about, well, if the culture that we're using is good for the bread and butter issues, but it's inhibiting us from addressing the wicked problems, what other kinds of aspects of culture might we think about that might give us a different understanding of, and approach to, this particular kind of problem. So in some ways the whole issue is a cultural problem. And we know that once you're in a culture, it's very hard for you to step outside the culture.

Keith  17:03  And that implies quite often you get really interesting conversations with people that don't understand the problem. I mean the gun control issue or the Brexit problem would be good examples of that. There are very few logical, rational debates about either of those two issues. They are much more to do with emotion than they are to do with logical rationality. For example, we have a couple of programs in the UK. They're based around political issues. One's a television program called Question Times. When you basically get a series of experts from across all kinds of social life and they're questioned by people in the audience. And then they just respond appropriately. And there's also a whole mechanism in the British Parliament called Prime Minister's question time. When you can ask the prime minister or various ministers questions.

Keith  17:56  So I've been watching both of these for about 40 years now. I have never, ever, seen anybody answering the question say, "oh, I see what you mean now. My whole life I've been wrong, but now I understand what you mean. I'm going to change my position." So that's never happened. So there is clearly something else underlying this. It's not about persuading people to change their mind, it's about something else. It's about demonstrating something else. So I think we have in our heads an assumption that if you're logical enough and you put enough resource in, you can solve all these problems. I think you can solve the tame problems like that. That's the whole point of a consultancy approach. You put enough expertise and resource in you can solve those kinds of problems. But wicked problems, they're not accessible to those kinds of approaches. And what you get is just people get angrier and angrier because they have not really worked out that this is a different category of problem.

David  18:52  Hmm. Yeah. So Keith, clearly you've given at least a half a dozen examples in this interview thus far around social problems that clearly are constituted as wicked problems. Do you think that most organizations face a lot of wicked problems in the same way that society does, but they just aren't aware of it? Or do you think that organizational life tends to revolve around tame problems?

Keith  19:24  I would say most of the time what organizations face is tame problems and occasionally a critical problem. Occasionally something goes radically wrong and then you have to step in and take control and do stuff. But most of the time, most of our lives are built around tame problems. So you'd probably spend, you know, three quarters of your daily life just pursuing tame problems. That's what we get appointed for and promoted for our ability to address, tame problems with the appropriate process. I mean that's what MBA curriculums are full of, they're full of a year's worth of "and this is how you address this particular kind of problem which will recur." But once people get beyond their MBA and then start to get promoted, they then face less and less tame problems and more and more wicked problems. And their temptation is either to go back to assuming it's a tame problem and apply their old knowledge and hope it's going to resolve it. And of course it won't. Or their tendency is just, "well, I'm only going to be here for a couple of years so it's not in my interest to actually address the problem in the first place."

David  20:28  Interesting.

Keith  20:28  Quite often these are really long-term, 5 year, 10 year, 50 year problems. So it becomes in the interest of people just to not talk about them, just to ignore them and to let somebody else deal with them.

David  20:41  That's such a fantastic point there Keith. Because in terms of biographically for me, I've been working as a leader in the same organization, I'm on my 14th year. And I'll tell you that our organization is not overly complicated by organizational standards. But the longer I'm at the organization, the more I understand the multiplicity and the multifaceted nature of all of the big challenges we face. And it seems to me, from my own subjective experience as a leader on the ground, that many things that I would have thought of as tame problems say six years ago, seven years ago, I now look at and I'm like, no, this is actually a wicked problem. There isn't a clear solution, and once you understand all the moving parts and the true complexity of what's happening, it's hard to argue that there's a management solution to this. So you know, a lot of what you're saying there is resonating deeply with me.

David  21:43  And I think for many listeners, particularly folks who are quite seasoned or have been in an institution or organization for a long time, I think they will recognize that, "wow, I'm actually confronting wicked rather than tame problems." So guess what? Calling up the management consultant isn't going to help me. And actually I need to change my use of language and the way I'm even positioning politically in the organization around this issue. So thank you for bringing that to us. I hadn't thought much about wicked problems in organizations themselves. They're obvious in society as you pointed out, but that's really helpful. Thank you.

David  22:25  With that, we close part two of our discussion with Keith Grint.

David  22:29  Wow! What an interesting conversation about the nature of problems. To recap, I heard several big points related to wicked problems. First is that you usually don't agree whether there is a problem itself. If you're lucky enough to have a consensus that there is indeed a problem. The challenge then with wicked ones is that there's really no procedure to follow to correct them. So profoundly, perhaps we are simply looking for, in Keith's words, "a less difficult or less dangerous solution rather than the right solution." Right there folks is a wise insight into leadership. How many of us have struggled to find the "right" solution? Oftentimes the best we can do is simply getting things done to move the ball down the field.

David  23:19  And while this podcast is designed for organizational leaders, I do wish to opine for a few seconds here. Does this not nail a critical issue in our society in the early 21st century? Namely, everybody thinks they're right and they can't understand why other people don't see things their way. We argue about answers incessantly. In fact, we create our own news networks to provide the same ridiculously self-serving, echo chamber type elements that serve our own particular solutions. Note what I said there "solutions." As Grint has taught us here, perhaps we need to think about the nature of our problems and from that point step back and conclude that some progress is better than no progress, particularly on society's big ones, the big issues that face us every day.

David  24:12  Secondly, moving back to organizational leadership, remember that our organizations tend to be set up to solve tame problems. As we think about the broader array of issues that we face, it's important to remember Grint's words that "we need to be experimental, iterative, and pragmatic in making progress." We aren't going to have a glowing solution to every problem we face, but we can improve things. If you liked this interview, stay tuned for our third and final installment with Keith Grint. Part three deals with engaging how language constructs our leadership reality.

David  24:52  Also, don't be shy and reaching out to talk with us. You can do that via the contact us tab at the top of the website. We'd love to hear your thoughts, hear what you are thinking about, and to learn more about what types of topics would be would be best to help you learn and grow as a leader. Also, don't be shy to tell others about this podcast. Let's grow the audience and grow the community of leaders learning and growing together.

David  25:18  Finally, if you're new to the podcast, you can find out more about Groler at our website. That's G R O L E R dot com. On the website you will find show notes for this episode along with a full transcript. You will also find additional episodes that you may benefit from engaging. You may want to consider subscribing to the show. You can do that via the iTunes store or via your particular podcast App. You can also be assured that you will never miss a new episode by subscribing to our mailing list at the Groler website. Groler exists to help you learn and grow as a leader. So keep learning, keep growing, keep leading. Until next time, I'm David Worley.
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